Friday, 20 December 2019

End-year bits and bobs

We're all winding down and people's appetites for competition and regulation stuff are likely waning, but as we all head for the beaches (Golden Bay in our case) here are some assorted bits and bobs that will tick over into 2020.

1 What's happened to Lodge? That's the case about real estate agents in Hamilton charged with anti-competitive collusive behaviour. The High Court said they didn't. The Court of Appeal said they did. The Supreme Court allowed an appeal last March and heard it in (from memory) August. Is four months the normal gestation period for a Supreme Court decision? Or is there some extended thinking going on about exactly what constitutes a meeting of minds as opposed to simultaneous but independent agreement on a course of action?

2 And if the Supreme Court does ping the Lodge real estate agents, what about the penalty? Other real estate companies hadn't fought the case, pleaded guilty, and got what I thought were fines on the high side of appropriate. I'm no fan of cartels: I was really pleased for example when the Aussie courts threw the book at the Japanese shipping lines (most recently here) and totally delighted when they nearly quintupled the fine on a brazen bang-to-rights Japanese cartellist who'd unwisely appealed the original A$9.5 million. But I'm not at all convinced that the book needs to get thrown in Lodge. Yes, of course, you don't want cartel fines becoming just another cost of doing business, and all that economics stuff about optimal deterrence needs to get an airing. But there also needs (in my view) to be a clearer distinction drawn between the less culpable and the most egregious.

3 Talking about appropriate penalties, when cartel criminalisation goes live in New Zealand in April 2021, is every cartel case going to be treated as a criminal matter? Or only the worse ones?

4 Still on cartels, I wonder how the ACCC's underwriting case is going to fare? Apart from the current skirmishing over whether the evidence trail has been contaminated - the case is definitely in criminal law process territory, as we will be too from 2021 - we're going to have another of those Lodge-style bunfights about whether everyone took the same view, given the force of the ambient circumstances, or went that step too far and collusively agreed to act together (in this case, allegedly, controlling how many unsold ANZ Bank shares would be dribbled out onto the market).

5 Does history repeat itself? You betcha. Seen the ACCC's first go under the new Australian 'effects' based formulation of abuse of market power (media release here, concise statement of claim here)? Let's see now, what does a port with its own pilot and towage business allegedly over-reacting to a competitor remind you of?

6 In the great scheme of things I'm more interested in competition and regulation than consumer protection. But I get it that consumer law has its place in making markets work well, and was persuaded a bit more in that direction at this year's RBB Economics conference. So I think we're on the right track with the new Fair Trading Amendment Bill, which aims to bring in a new 'unconscionable conduct' provision, and which you'd think would help address gross imbalances in market power between sellers and buyers. "Unconscionable" isn't defined in the Bill but the government's explanatory note (which presumably will come into play when there's the eventual statutory interpretation headbutting) says that "Unconscionable conduct is serious misconduct that goes far beyond being commercially necessary or appropriate". The good bit is that s7(3) and s8 try to give some guidance to the court, in order to avoid the Kobelt outcome we recently saw in Oz (good summary here, case itself here) where it went to penalty goals and a 4 -3 decision against finding the alleged unconscionability. But - and maybe it's a fool's search to go looking in the first place - I can't say that "serious misconduct that goes far beyond being commercially necessary or appropriate" rings my bells as a decisive guide.

7 Out of the blue, earlier this month I got an e-mail from the American Bar Association Antitrust Law Section about a seminar that will "be focused on platforms regulation and merger litigation. Rod Sims will deliver a keynote that follows-up on the ACCC’s Digital Platforms Inquiry and provides an update on the ACCC’s next steps, followed by an interactive panel discussing that report and other issues related to digital platform regulation. This will be followed by an all-star panel of judges and litigators from the United States and Australia discussing the unique features and challenges involved in the increasingly common practice of litigating merger cases". I looked it up: it sounds promising, and I'm going. It's free, and only half a day, in Sydney on February 6. While it's free, you need to register here.



    1. Thank you my Anonymous friend. As the useful link shows, the Court aims for six months from the end of a hearing (ex holidays which have indeed intervened here) so it is currently within its indicative delivery time.


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